Otto and Margaret (Maggie-May) Lindbergh were restaurateurs from Red Bank, N.J. and related to the famed aviator who soloed across the Atlantic in 1927. They were frequent visitors to Saybrook and part-owners of the Fairview Hotel on Ferry Road. In 1923 they purchased the massive stone mansion known as the “Hartlands” and renamed it Ye Castle Inn. It became a notable gathering place where the rich and famous came to discreetly drink and gamble.
Although drinking and gambling seem to fuel much of the economy of southeastern Connecticut today, the times were different. From 1920 to 1933 an unprecedented social experiment known simply as “prohibition,” was the law of the land and designed to prevent people from drinking alcoholic beverages.
This “noble experiment,” as Herbert Hoover called it, had a considerable impact on life along the Connecticut coastline.
An extensive operation to evade the law and provide liquor to prominent patrons at “Ye Castle Inn,” as well as other shoreline and river speakeasies, was launched by August Campbell Strusholm, husband of Jenny Lindbergh and son-in-law of Castle owners Otto and Margaret Lindbergh.
With ships that could outrun the U.S. Coast Guard, and late-night pick-up and delivery service provided by local residents from shoreline drop-off points, Strusholm developed one of the largest smuggling operations along the Connecticut coast. His ties to influential political figures and connections with New York-based criminal organizations ensured his success for several years.
Strusholm began by hiring local fishermen to take their boats out to Montauk Point beyond the 3-mile-limit. Here in international waters these fearless but lawless pilots would meet waiting freighters from Nova Scotia, Bermuda, and Cuba. The precious cargo would then be transferred from this “rum row” and the smaller “rum runners” would return to drop-off points along the Connecticut River and coast.
Here young men and high school students were paid up to $50 a load to transfer the cases of liquor into disguised vans marked “Hartford Laundry” or “Hellman’s Mayonnaise Delivery Service.” From there it was brought to speakeasies where a popular late-night song celebrated the occasion:
“Four and twenty Yankees feeling very dry,
Went to Montreal, to get a drink of rye,
When the rye was opened,
They all began to sing,
To hell with Mr. Volstead,
And God save the King.”
To finance his operation, the friendly and well-liked Strusholm often partnered with others, including New York based organized crime figures, most notably a ruthless Brooklyn bootlegger named Frankie Yale (1893-1928) who was eventually murdered by his New York rivals.
Yale is remembered today for being the first to hire Al Capone before Capone moved to Chicago and for his own funeral, which included 23 flower cars, 110 Cadillac limousines carrying mourners, and a silver casket. It was the most impressive gangland funeral in American history.
By the mid-1920s Strusholm had five 40- to 60-foot cruisers equipped with World War I Liberty aircraft engines that could easily outrun the Coast Guard. Their primary drop-off point was the old trolley power house on Ferry Road where a mechanic worked full time repairing boats.
Within a few years he had even larger ships. The New Haven Register reported that “L’Esperance (The Hope), a converted cruiser with a sword fishing pulpit was being overhauled in Essex for J.M. Campbell of Cornfield Point. The 60-foot-ship is capable of exceeding 30 miles an hour and is propelled by two 200 horse power Liberty motors. The owner of the boat is a son-in-law of Otto Lindberg, proprietor of Castle Inn at Cornfield Point.”
At the Castle he installed a radio in the tower and hired former fisherman Davy Hughes to monitor the movements of the Coast Guard and alert owners and patrons of raids.
To safely conceal the illegal liquor, the Castle had a series of false walls and several large closets in guest rooms. There’s often been talk of a tunnel that was used to transfer liquor directly into the Castle. Noting that the shoreline is rocky and the waters often rough, Mrs. Charles “Peggy” King, Strusholm’s daughter, who grew up there, reported: “I can say once and for all that there was no tunnel from the Castle out to the Sound.”
Enforcement of the prohibition laws improved slowly but by the mid-1920s the Coast Guard had obtained surplus World War I destroyers and became more of an even match for the rum runners.
They were eventually able to frustrate Stursholm further when he purchased a 110-foot surplus World War I ship and was having it refitted at the power house. His activities were becoming too evident and every time it was taken out, the Coast Guard and the FBI followed close behind.
On Aug. 1, 1930 the state police from the Westbrook barracks raided the Castle and confiscated two roulette wheels. Perhaps more significantly, they arrested Otto Lindbergh who was required to post bond of $400.
Six months later, on Jan. 23, 1931, a 59-foot rum boat powered by two 300 horsepower engines, the “Goose,” was captured at 2 in the morning by the Coast Guard waiting for the contraband at Saybrook Point. When the Coast Guard turned on a powerful search light, the startled crew jumped overboard and escaped. The ship was registered as a fishing boat to Arthur A. Rowland of Bridgeport but amazingly similar to those used by Strusholm.
The proprietors of the well-appointed Ye Castle Inn maintained a lavish style for their high society clientele but the times, they were changing.